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History of Hula

Hula is the dance of Hawai‘i. It has developed into one of the most beautiful, unique cultural arts in the world.  Passed down through generations by kahuna (priests and sages), and by kumu hula (master teachers), it has been practiced since early Polynesians arrived in the islands around 500 A.D.  Hula is an art form that preserves and shares the traditional and evolving culture of Hawai‘i – its history, literature, arts, and environment.

There are two types of hula: Kahiko and ‘Auana.

In ancient Hawai‘i, there was no written language. History, religion and stories were passed to others through chants. Dancers were used to illustrate the stories through hand and body motions. Kahiko is this form of dancing – a chanter using either a drum or ipu for percussion beat, and the dancer using strong, stiff motions. There were serious hulas, so generally, the dancers did not smile. When the missionaries came, they were shocked to see the dancers with no tops and only ti leaf or kapa clothe skirts. They made the dancers tops, gathered skirts, and sometimes bloomers to wear.

Children were picked, sometimes even before birth, for a life in the hālau hula. The infant was given to the kumu hula to raise and train. These special students leaned hula by discussing a chant with the kumu. Then, when they slept, the motions would come to them. By morning, the dance would have already been learned and memorized.

The hālau was a large building, closed on all sides for privacy. The most important furnishing was the Kuahu or altar dedicated to Laka, goddess of the hula. Laka was represented by a piece of Lama wood wrapped in yellow kapa (tapa). Lama wood was used because Lama can mean enlightenment. Plants were also offered, offerings that symbolized body parts of Laka. Many prayers were said while journeying in and out of the forest for these special plants. Maile was placed on the Kuahu to symbolize the umbilical cord. One end is attached to Laka, the other to the person, so there is a connection. Lehua was used because the tree is male, the flower is female. Pili grass was tied in two bundles, laid facing opposite ways. Pili means to cling, so whatever you are taught shall cling to you and you won’t forget. Each island had its special plants.

Within the hālau, there were several levels of authority. At the top was the kumu hula – the source of all knowledge. Just below were the ho’opa’a – chanters and drummers. These were older, experienced students who had already spent many years dancing. They did most of the hula noho. Next were the Po’opua’a – they collected fines, enforced penalties. Last were the ‘Ōlapa – young, agile dancers.

These were the kūkulu or foundations of the hālau. All members were required to follow the different kapu (taboos) or suffer intense cleansing rituals.

After years of training, the time came for the student to graduate from the hālau. The graduation is known as Uniki. Many people were invited: family, friends, other kumu hulas known as olohe. They passed judgment on the student who had spent most of his or her life preparing for this moment, their Uniki – public debut.

The missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i in 1819, the same year that King Kamehameha died. This was one reason why Christianity took hold, the people were in transition. Because of the missionaries disapproval, hula was driven underground.

Is wasn't until King David Kalākaua, 1874, the hula was accepted again. King Kalakaua’s fascination with all things foreign helped bring modern style to hula. Hālaus hula came out of hiding and began to openly perform again. They had preserved the knowledge of the oral chants and dances, which they began to share with the public. ‘Auana was an evolution of hula through contact with the foreigners. The paniolo (cowboys) from Spain and Portugal brought their guitars and song. The sailors brought dance steps and singing. ‘Auana means to wander, drift away. Hula began to use music, and new dance steps combined with the traditional ones. The dances became graceful and the dancers smiled. The holokus and mu‘umu‘u worn were versions of Victorian dresses.

The image of the lovely hula dancer in a cellophane skirt was picked up by Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. Hula was stereotyped by this cliché image, which although cheesy, cannot be ignored as part of the evolution of the hula. It resulted in many hapa-haole songs (hula dances sung in English). For example, the Hukilau, Little Brown Gal, Lovely Hula Hands, etc. The good thing was that hula became known all over the world, the bad was that the images were less-than-welcome.

In the 60s, there began a revival of Hawaiian pride. Many Hawaiians and kama‘āina have dedicated themselves to the hula and the culture, by making their own leis, costumes and ornaments. They have Hawaiian language in the schools now. Kumu hulas today are teaching the old chants and hulas to a new generation, and also creating their own dances and chants as hula keeps evolving. There are hula hālaus all over the world, as other nations become entranced by the beauty of the hula.